A number of legislators, civil-rights lobbyists, and feminist writers are pushing harder than ever for the repeal of U. S. laws barring women from combat.1 They insist that the average female recruit scores higher than her male counterpart on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, and that women can participate in combat, an arena that has become—on the surface-—more technical and less physical. They contend that because women are inherently no less adept than men at flying jets, driving tanks, conning ships, or other combat skills that do not require great strength, it is appropriate to include them in U.S. fighting units—in fact, not to include them is to deny them a civil right.
Before we impose combat duty on women, we should understand that successful warfare depends less on manual or mental skills than on an amalgam of intangible human qualities including cohesion, morale, efficiency, esprit, and aggressiveness. We should ask ourselves not only whether women can physically and mentally perform basic combat functions—shooting a rifle, operating a missile system, loading bombs on a carrier deck—but, as well, whether women and men can adapt emotionally to the socially radical step of fighting side-by-side. The debate must acknowledge some of the basic realities of armed service.
Cohesion: Men are emotionally sustained by the cohesive bonds forged in combat.2 The phenomenon is usually referred to as “male bonding,” which is a distasteful notion for some because it manifests itself among sedentary men in crude fraternity rites and funny hats at men’s clubs. But among men facing a common crisis, be it a football team in the big game, a platoon under enemy fire, or a pilot and his wingman over hostile territory, that bonding instinct is crucial to the cohesion of the group. Of men in these circumstances, J. Glenn Gray, philosopher and World War II combat veteran, writes: “We feel earnest and gay at such moments because we are liberated from our individual impotence and are drunk with the power that union with our fellows brings . . . 'I' passes insensibly to a 'we,' 'my' becomes 'our,' and individual fate loses its central importance."3
To men with a strong communal purpose, fidelity to the unit is often more important than personal gain, family, or even self-preservation. A man joins the military for a variety of reasons, but when he finds himself on the battlefleld, he faces the danger not for the Constitution, democracy, or even his paycheck--it is for his buddies. Under the duress of looming mortality, he draws his strength from the men around him--from his trust in them and theirs in him. That trust exceeds the knowledge of each other's capabilities; it is anchored, rather, in the intuitive comprehension that men have of each other's psyches: their fears, motives, and emotional needs. Men who train, fight, and live together are emotionally synchronized and do not harbor complicated psychological mysteries.
In contrast, women do not naturally band together ritual comradeship. When they form an organization, they normally do so for an explicit function—a political committee, professional club, or support group—rather than simply out of a desire to belong. Their enormous personal courage usually reflects their loyalties to family and home rather than to each other and “the group.” .
But while feminine loyalties are arguably more civilized, productive, and intellectually defensible than the male compulsion to be part of a group, it nevertheless remains that the bonding imperative is crucial to the collective mettle of men in combat. Regardless of how women would interact under fire, one must consider what happens to the bonds between men when a combat unit is integrated sexually.
Clearly, there will be die-hard chauvinists who resent the intrusion of women because it challenges their illusions of superiority. Education can help breed this prejudice out of an organization, if not out of every individual. However, men among whom the threat of battle has produced uncommonly powerful bonds will react to sexual integration in a variety of ways:
► They may become inhibited and stilted, self-consciously muting the more overt expressions of their comraderie because they feel that frank vulgarity is inappropriate in the presence of females, even if that vulgarity is a male social lubricant and if women profess not to object.
► They may openly rebuff her presence because they are unable to relate to her on masculine emotional terms.
► They may treat her with patronizing tolerance, as the unit's mascot.
► They may being to compete with each other for her attention, breaking up group loyalties and shared destiny for individual sexual or romantic gratification.
In any event, the corporate commitment to the cohesion of the fighting unit, and consequently its most powerful asset in combat, disintegrates.
Cultural Tradition: “No other country has as many women in areas so near to actual battle positions as the United States," wrote Seth Cropsey in a 1982 article.4 From the Greek hoplites to the Mongol hordes, from the Napoleonic armies to the Zulu warriors, and from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to Stalin's navy, societies have fever questioned that men should shoulder the duties of fighting and dying. Does that constitute a 10,000-year-old conspiracy by males in all parts of the world to deliberately exclude females from the "privilege" of fighting? Or does it support the possibility that men and women are biologically suited for different roles?
George Gilder wrote in 1986:
The woman assumes charge of what may be described as the domestic values of the community—its moral, aesthetic, religious, social, and sexual concerns. In these values consist the ultimate goals of human life—all those matters that we consider of such supreme importance that we do not ascribe a financial worth to them . . . The community is largely what she is and what she demands in men.”5
The role of the male, Gilder argues, is to provide for and defend the hub of human existence—represented by the
female—in a pattern repeated throughout the animal kingdom. Yet, sexual liberationists insist that any suggestion
of differences between males and females is “sexist” and therefore intellectually inadmissable.
In nearly every human endeavor in modern society, the civilized manners that we expect of one another create an environment in which rudimentary instincts are muted. Therefore, women can and should compete on terms of intellect, manual dexterity, and talent. To preclude women from organizations such as Ford, IBM, or Congress is not only unfair, but unwise. A woman may have as much or more to offer in mental and manual skills as her male competitor; her uniquely feminine emotional qualities are largely irrelevent, if not assets. Legislating equal access to those roles is imperative in a society dedicated to the free pursuit of happiness.
But those who extend that argument of equality to combat overlook the fact that the veneer of civilization is stripped away on the battlefield. There, rudimentary instincts are not repressed. On the contrary, where men are killing each other, every male animal instinct prevails— aggression, power lust, territoriality, and dominance. Intellect, manual dexterity, and talent certainly have their places in modem warfare, but two fighter pilots meeting in state-of-the-art aircraft over Central Europe are no different psychically than two cavalrymen meeting on their mounts on a 19th century European meadow. The one that lacks the killer instinct will die, most likely. In the words of General Robin Olds, an 8th Air Force fighter ace in World War II, “Fighting spirit one must have. Even if a man lacks some of the other qualifications, he can often make up for it in fighting spirit.”
But even barring the question of whether women can exhibit such fighting spirit, consider the young man under fire and neck deep in the mud of a jungle foxhole, sustained in that purgatory by the vision of home—a warm, feminine place that represents all the good things that his battlefield is not. Somewhere in that soldier’s world view, though he may not be able to articulate it, is the notion that he is here—willfully bonded with a dozen other guys in this corner of this jungle and unsure if the next bullet is going to terminate his introspection—so that all the higher ideals of home embodied in mother, sister, and girlfriend do not have to be here.
To ship that ideal out, dress her in a flack jacket, mash a helmet over her curls, and plop her in the next foxhole is to mortally disorient a man who is already near the end of his psychological tether. Proponents of placing females in combat insist that such an argument is based on nothing but archaic tradition; that gender-specific attitudes can be programmed through training and education; that men and women can be conditioned to react to each other under battlefield stress as sexless entities, as just another grunt or sailor. Never mind the Orwellian overtones in that notion: the man who places his life at risk for a way of life represented by the unique virtues of womanhood is going to be rudderless and demoralized if that uniqueness is is denied.
Personnel Management: The military is, for the thousands of new soldiers and sailors every year, in loco parentis. Unlike the foreman of an auto assembly line, whose responsibility for his charges ends at shift change, the chief or officer of, for example, a shipboard division is responsible for every aspect of his sailors’ lives. That means he must not only instruct and oversee them in military duties, but he must also be involved in their development as young men—young men who are often immature, not formally educated, and sometimes product of a neglectful or even violent home life. Most chiefs and division officers claim that there is no one more dedicated, loyal, and hard-working than the modern American bluejacket. But they will also admit that 50-70% of their job is spent dealing with problems—drug and alcohol abuse, family difficulties, personal finance disasters, personality crises, venereal disease, fighting, gambling, and other manifestations of boyish aggression. The last thing they want to add to that tinder box is the sexual tension and competition created by the presence of a dozen similarly immature girls. On a 5,000-man aircraft carrier where 19-year-old sailors are working 12, 15, sometimes even 20 hours a day on a blistering, howling flight deck where a simple mistake can kill even during routine peacetimeoperations, there is simply no room for the problem of sexual harassment, rape, prostitution, pregnancy, love triangles, and adolescent emotional crises that have plagued most Navy supply ships and tenders since the Navy began its experiment in coeducation in the 1970s.
The problem is by no means restricted to the young enlisted ranks. Many officers assume suaveness is a substitute for morality, and are just as susceptible as their young charges to the glandular temptations of living with the opposite sex in intimate proximity for months at a time.
Those who deny these facts of life are usually accustomed to a professional and social environment of carefully insulated refinement, where impolite lusts and appetites can be repressed—or covered up—by intellect, ideology, and cultivated manners. But as in any combat unit, warships at sea are raw, stressful communities where civilized mores come under extreme pressure from ubiquitous threat of violent death. Orderliness, civil behavior, and military efficiency are maintained mainly by discipline and leadership.
It is argued that, with enlightened supervision and training, creative berthing arrangements, and enhanced counseling resources, a sexually integrated combat force could work. But the time, equipment, and money available, to train troops and meet the growing press of operational commitments are already overtaxed, especially in the Navy. To commit resources to an experimental and largely political effort to enfranchise women in combatant ranks would be to miss the only important objective of the armed forces: to fight and win wars in the defense of the nation.
Biology: A woman’s unique physical requirements would impose unreasonable strains on the military logistical system. Pregnancy is a well-documented and ongoing problem that requires, for example, some Navy commanding officers to deploy without a significant portion of their assigned personnel—those sailors left behind in the maternity ward.6 Feminists address menstruation by pointing out that women in the civilian workplace deal with the problem successfully, that women under stress and strenuous physical training often do not menstruate at all, and associated feminine mood swings may not be any more debilitating than similar male emotional cycles. But it is absurd to equate the typical nine-to-five civilian work place, where a woman can be assured of some privacy during the day and the comfortable respite of home in the evening, with the rudimentary lifestyle and round-the-clock demands of a Navy ship, infantry platoon, or forward-deployed squadron.
“…war fighting is a primitive, machismo phenomenon, and as long as a society maintains a military force for its armed defense, it must be prepared to win a primitive, machismo conflict”
Perhaps a combat unit could provide the dignity and safety of private, sanitary facilities instead of reducing its men and women members to the barnyard expedient of common latrines and shared bodily functions. Perhaps, as Mady Weschler Segal writes, "Material research effort can be directed towards developing new devices for absorbing menstrual flow that can be left in place for sufficient amounts of time to make them more convenient [in the field].”7 But there is no strategic or tactical sense in changing the composition of a fighting force so that its logistical problems multiply. There is no advantage that women bring to the front line that is worth the expense and encumbrance of providing private facilities, creating "milspec” tampons, and keeping ships' stores stocked with feminine hygiene needs.
Image and Deterrence: Much of the purpose of this country’s modern armed force is to convince the world that it can and will defeat anyone who attacks it. Not only can a strong military image deter those who might consider aggression, it also encourages allies to invest faith and support in their relationship with the United States.
What what will be the effect on U. S. military credibility if its combat forces include females, especially in the eyes of a world that stubbornly insists that there are differences between men and women? It is not unusual to find a five-foot-six inch, 19-year-old girl wearing an oversized helmet and struggling with the strap on her weapon on guard the gate of a typical U. S. Army base in West Germany. She represents the symbolic virility of U. S. contributions to the defense of Western Europe. Does that observation reflect a primitive, machismo attitude? Perhaps, but war fighting is a primitive, machismo phenomenon, and as long as a society maintains a military force for its armed defense, it must be prepared to win a primitive, machismo conflict.
Military literature is rife with examples of large armies defeated by smaller ones with superior morale. If motivated soldiers are facing a larger force that seems to be weak, dispirited, and inexperienced, they are likely to fight hard and win on the strength of superior morale. Karl von Clausewitz emphasized the tactical and strategic importance of such intangible influences on the battlefield— his concept of "friction." 8 Would an army or navy with women in its ranks be weak or dispirited? Certainly it would appear so to a traditional army of rigidly disciplined Warsaw Pact combat troops or a rabble of radically macho Middle East adversaries. The mere appearance of weakness could tip the balance in a military engagement; more important, it could help an aggressor decide whether to fight at all.
Many proponents of women in combat—perhaps because virtually none of them have combat experience—do not understand the crucial role of Clausewitz's "friction" i.e., the effects of emotion, psychology, perception, morale, esprit, and cohesion on war fighting. They do not accept that—in combat—life, death, military success, and the defense of society depend not only on analytical, organizational, and conceptual skills, but on gender specific fears, instincts, charisma, and even sexual ideals. Those who do acknowledge "friction" naively assume that men and women can be made gender-blind by bureaucratic fiat; that military recruits can be conditioned to sublimate their environmental and hormonal instincts, even under battlefield stress.
Worst are the ideologues who insist that there is no higher good than the unfettered and loosely-defined "rights" of every citizen. But to argue—in the face of the realities of military life—that a woman should bear arms if she so desires is to make the self-defeating argument that the privileges of a given individual are more important than the defense of the society that affords him or her those privileges.
1. 'Section 6015, Title 10, U. S. Code.
2. 'For a discussion of unit cohesion see R. Gabriel and P. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 31-32.
3. Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), p. 45. 45
4. S. Cropsey, "Women in Combat?" The Public Interest 6/, Fall 1980, p. 69.
5. G. Gilder, "The Sexual Revolution at Home," National Review, 10 October 1986, p. 31.
6. See R. Spillane, "Women in Ships: Can We Survive?" Proceedings, July 1987, pp. 43-46.
7. M. Segal, "The Argument for Women in Combat," in N. Goldman, ed., Female Soldiers: Combatants or Noncombatants? (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 273.
8. Clausewitz entitled Chapter VII, Book 1, of On War "Friction in War."